As Wimbledon comes to a close, we're counting down the 10 most memorable matches at the All England Club over the last 50 years.
On the afternoon of June 23, 2010, something odd happened in offices, bars, and homes all around the United States: People began watching a tennis match. It wasn’t, when it started, an important tennis match: John Isner, the 23rd seed, was facing Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the first round at Wimbledon, on court No. 18. Few people in the U.S. believed Isner was a threat to win the tournament; fewer still could pronounce his opponent’s last name.
There were long stretches when the match wasn’t especially interesting to watch, either; it offered little drama from one point to the next. By the time the world began tuning in, Isner and Mahut were deep into a fifth set, and had been trading service holds for hours. Play had been suspended once for darkness, the previous day. Now, as the sun set over the All England Club again, and the score reached 20-all, 30-all (!), 40-all (!!), 50-all (!!!), 60-all (!!!!), it looked as if this match would be suspended for a second day, for the same reason. Had that ever happened before? Had anything that was going on out on Court 18 ever happened before? Even the scoreboard found itself in uncharted waters. Designed to go only to 47-47, it malfunctioned and had to be fixed that evening.
WATCH—International Tennis Hall of Fame:
People had tuned in at their offices, bars, and homes for one reason: Isner and Mahut were in the process of playing the longest match in tennis history. The last decade in men’s tennis has been about outsized, record-breaking achievements: Roger Federer’s 20 Slams, Rafael Nadal’s La Décima at the French Open, Novak Djokovic’s four straight Slams in 2005 and 2006. You can add Isner-Mahut to that Olympian list. While it was brutal for the two men to play, and a chore at times to watch, the statistics from Isner-Mahut are still mind-blowing to recite.
Score: 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68
11 hours, 5 minutes: Total match time. That’s four hours and three minutes more than the second-longest match, a Davis Cup doubles rubber between the Czech Republic and Switzerland in 2013.
8 hours, 11 minutes: Time taken to play the fifth set. The longest baseball game ever played was eight hours and six minutes.
138: Games in the fifth set. That’s 26 more than have been played in any other match
215: Aces. Isner hit 112, Mahut 103. The previous record was 78 by Ivo Karlovic
183: Total games played. That’s 71 more than the second-highest total at Wimbledon, in Pancho Gonzalez’s five set win over Charlie Pasarell in 1969
63: Times that Mahut served to stay in the match
3: Service breaks
At 68-68, Mahut went up 0-30 on Isner’s serve, but the American came back to hold. Maybe Mahut was still thinking about that opportunity when he walked out to serve the next game, because he missed an easy volley that would have won him a point. Isner, who had been on his last legs for the better part of 24 hours, finally took advantage, first with a forehand pass and then, on his fourth match point, with a down-the-line backhand pass winner. All 6’10” of Isner dropped to the grass, before his legs caromed back up nearly as high in celebration.
Isner and Mahut were suddenly famous, and they struck up what might have been an otherwise unlikely friendship. Some thought their epic had been a bore, as well as a good argument for a fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon (you’ll get no disagreement on the latter point from Isner), yet this match was about more than just its surreal length and statistics.
There was something more fundamental that made people around the world tune in. It was Mahut, at 50-games-all in the fifth set, leaping, diving, flinging his racquet at the ball, and landing face down at full stretch. It was Isner whiffing on a backhand, standing with his hands on his knees and his hat askew, utterly gassed, yet still laboring on for 40 more games. It was Mahut enduring a heart-breaking defeat, but still winning more points and hitting more aces in a single match than any other player in history—except John Isner. It was all the times that each of them could have dropped their guard—it would only have taken a bad point or two—but didn’t.
The fact that this was a first-round match, played on an obscure court between two players who weren’t stars only added to the appeal. What mattered was that, whatever the stakes, neither man gave in. Isner-Mahut wasn’t the most thrilling tennis match ever. But it’s one of the greatest ever because, for a longer period of time than any other, it represented what’s at the heart of every tennis match, and every sport: The fight.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.